efore she was accused of thought- crime, the London-based American writer Lionel Shriver was best known for her 2003 bestseller, We Need to Talk about Kevin, an epistolary novel about a mother’s efforts to understand why her son had carried out a Columbine-like school massacre. She has published five novels since Kevin, to wide acclaim, but it was a keynote speech she gave at an Australian literary event in September that made her the most unlikely celebrity of 2016.
Shriver had been invited by the Brisbane Writers Festival to discuss “community and belonging.” Instead, Shriver gave a talk about “fiction and identity politics” that criticized the idea of “cultural appropriation” and other forms of political correctness. She espoused the right of writers to create characters and speak in the voices of people ethnically or culturally different from themselves, pointing out that “otherwise, all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina.”
She excoriated contemporary forms of politically correct censorship with typically astringent fearlessness and rubbished the whole notion of identity politics: “Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.” It was a tough, fine, coruscating essay that should be widely read by every university head, arts administrator, and literature teacher in the West. But it might have gone unnoticed beyond Queensland had not a local activist stormed out of the talk and then written about its offensiveness for the Guardian.
The article was by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a 25-year-old Sudanese-Australian author (of a memoir, of course), engineer, and activist, who had ostentatiously walked out of Shriver’s speech (while live-tweeting her walkout). Many people who came across the article, myself included, thought initially that it was a witty spoof of the ultra–politically correct counterculture that has taken such a hold in many academic and literary institutions. Its censorious mixture of ignorance, arrogance, inverted racism, melodramatic self-pity, and self-righteousness (at one point Abdel-Magied declares that Shriver’s dismissal of “cultural appropriation” is “the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide”) seemed almost too perfect, too titanically solipsistic to be real.
The piece describes in detail the impact that Shriver’s lecture about “fiction and identity politics” had on the Young Person. She’d known something was amiss at the beginning of the talk when Shriver mocked the fuss made at Bowdoin College in Maine about a Mexican-themed party at which non-Mexican students wore sombreros—even donning a sombrero herself—and “the audience chuckled, compliant.”
Naturally, Abdel-Magied “started looking forward to the point of the speech where [Shriver] was to subvert the argument. It never came.” Twenty minutes into the talk, Abdel-Magied was overwhelmed and turned to her mother, who was there with her: “‘Mama, I can’t sit here,’ I said, the corners of my mouth dragging downwards. ‘I cannot legitimize this.’”
Abdel-Magied’s tale of oppression by disrespect gets more dramatic: “The faces around me blurred. As my heels thudded against they grey plastic of the flooring, harmonizing with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins, my mind was blank save for one question. How is this happening?”
The shocking, unbelievable “this” that prompted Abdel-Magied to turn down her mouth, text her friends, and storm out of the hall was the un-ironic expression of an opinion so close to secular blasphemy that a believer like Abdel-Magied could not bear to hear it. It turned out Shriver’s talk was “nothing less than a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction” [italics hers]. Worse still, in words she presumed were so outrageous her readers would immediately recoil from them, “Shriver’s real targets were cultural appropriation, identity politics, and political correctness.”
As Shriver was suggesting, the cultural-appropriation police seem not to understand the dead end represented by their racialist essentialism.
This seems baffling, given that her own account of the event makes it clear that Abdel-Magied could not herself tolerate being even mildly uncomfortable, and given that almost every review of a Shriver novel describes her work as challenging and discomforting.
Shriver’s relative obscurity before and even after the success of Kevin (which was made into a 2009 movie starring Tilda Swinton) has been both undeserved and understandable: Undeserved because Shriver is a superb, unforgiving satirist in the Horatian tradition. Her caustic new novel, The Mandibles: 2029–2047, depicts life in an impoverished, dystopic United States following the collapse of the dollar. Understandable because the sensibility that informs Shriver’s work is largely anathema to the grandees of what passes for literary culture in our day.
It seems that when Abdel-Magied says “ thinkers who challenge us,” what she really means is “thinkers who challenge you unenlightened people who need your consciousness raised by people like me.” Certainly, it’s not uncommon for devotees of the discourse of cultural appropriation, political correctness, and trigger warnings to use words in ways that invert their customary meanings.
Much of the controversy that followed was not so much about the bizarre, self-contradictory notion of “cultural appropriation” but about Shriver’s supposedly insensitive treatment of it and its allegedly “vulnerable” and “oppressed” devotees (most of whom, it goes almost without saying, are upper-middle-class graduates of or students at elite Western universities).
The past few years have seen an explosion of concern about “cultural appropriation,” especially on campuses. There was the complaint by students at Oberlin that their dining hall’s choice to serve sushi was “appropriative” and disrespectful.” At the University of San Francisco, white students wearing their hair in dreadlocks were accused of wrongly appropriating a hairstyle that is supposedly the sole preserve of “black culture.” Then came the widely reported cancellation of a yoga class at the University of Ottawa because yoga in North America has supposedly been appropriated from a culture that “experienced oppression, cultural genocide, and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy.” (Never mind that much of the physical practices in yoga are recent developments that actually have their origin in 19th-century European gymnastics.)
As is so often the case, this sinister American academic fad has spread swiftly to other Anglophone countries, and it may have become even more toxic in transit. At the beginning of October, at Britain’s Bristol University, a production of the musical Aida (an adaptation of Verdi by Elton John and Tim Rice) was cancelled because student protesters claimed that having white actors play Ethiopian and Egyptian characters would be “cultural appropriation.”
This is the context in which Abel-Magied’s screed must be read. Shriver was indeed taking this totalitarian impulse on directly, and her offended listener was therefore right to see Shriver’s speech as a dagger aimed at her intellectual heart. It would be something of an understatement to say that it is rare for an American literary figure to come out in this way against a movement that has such strong support among young people and such moral prestige in important cultural institutions. There are plenty of politically engaged American writers, of course, but they tend to take stands against things that everyone they know and work with are also against, like the Iraq war or Guantanamo. The same outrageousness, and lack of interest in swimming with the tide, is apparent in her work.
As Shriver was suggesting, the cultural-appropriation police seem not to understand the dead end represented by their racialist essentialism—or how easily it might be turned around against them. By their logic, black actors should not be allowed to play Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, or other “white” roles in Shakespeare, and nonwhite performers should be completely excluded from taking part in any opera or classical ballet given that both are “white” European art forms, in the same way that jazz or blues music could be said to belong exclusively to black people.
Nor do those who prate about “cultural appropriation” in fiction seem to understand—or care—that, as Shriver pointed out, literature would be impossible if writers were forbidden from imagining and creating characters of different gender, race, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation to their own. In this sense, the “cultural-appropriation” movement is a particularly poisonous form of philistinism, one that is all the more distressing because those obsessed with it are theoretically well-educated people.
But the most disturbing thing about the Brisbane furor was not that another millennial spoke of the trauma she experienced in having her beliefs challenged, or that the Guardian saw fit to publish her unintentionally funny op-ed about the horror of having her ideology subjected to Shriver’s mockery, or even that the instant reaction of the Brisbane Writers Festival to controversy was to take Shriver’s speech off its website and arrange a bogus “right of reply” session at which Shriver was guaranteed to be absent. These are all depressingly commonplace phenomena in the Anglophone world, even in far-off, relatively conservative, provincial cities like Brisbane.
The instinct to suppress certain categories of ‘offensive’ speech and thought is at least as strong now as it was in the Victorian era.
The New Republic published an article by Suki Kim, a Korean-American novelist who had been in the audience in Brisbane. She assured readers that “the most upsetting aspects of the speech won’t be found in the transcript. It was the sight of a white woman who has had great literary success playing the victim.” Kim, it should perhaps be noted, is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Open Society Fellowship and a Fulbright Grant.
According to Nesrine Malik in the Guardian, Shriver was “disrespectful,” and her speech was “unexamined, entitled and just plain ignorant.” As a “successful white author with a platform,” her “vantage point [had] blinded her to the validity of others.”
A writer for the New Yorker named Jia Tolentino also admonished Shriver, gravely pointing out that “there are all sorts of ways to borrow another person’s position: respectfully and transformatively, in ignorance, or with disdain . . . One of the worst ways to wear a sombrero, I think, is to be a white keynote speaker at a literary festival, saying, ‘I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad.’”
Given that it took Shriver three decades of relatively impoverished struggle to achieve any success as a novelist, you can only wonder how she feels being lectured about privilege and victimhood by young writers of color who have been lavished with fellowships and book contracts by the infamous racists in the American and British publishing industry.
Astonishingly, another of those who took Shriver to task was the highly regarded American novelist Francine Prose. On the website of the New York Review of Books, Prose admonished that “I can think of only a few situations in which humor is entirely out of line, but a white woman (even one who describes herself as a ‘renowned iconoclast’) speaking to an ethnically diverse audience might have considered the ramifications of playing the touchy subjects of race and identity for easy laughs.”
For disingenuousness, Prose’s attack on Shriver is hard to beat, and not just because priggishly censorious people invariably buttress their condemnations of “inappropriate” humor with the false claim that in general they are against censoring humor. Anyone reading Shriver’s speech would be in no doubt that its author was making a serious point rather than “playing…the subjects of race and identity for easy laughs.” But even if she hadn’t been, it’s hard to believe that Prose can’t think of many, many situations in which humor is “out of line.” She is, for example, on record as believing that the slaughtered staff of France’s Charlie Hebdo magazine had also been “out of line,” i.e., asking for it, when they made fun of the militant Islam of those who eventually killed them.1
What all this goes to show is that extreme attitudes to race-based censorship that were until recently confined to the academy have leached into the higher precincts of the general culture, and that the instinct to suppress certain categories of “offensive” speech and thought is at least as strong now as it was in the Victorian era.
So it is perhaps rather surprising that it has taken so long for Lionel Shriver to come to the notice of the millennials at the forefront of the new censorship movement and their establishment allies. (Perhaps if she weren’t resident in London and didn’t have a man’s first name, it would have happened sooner.) Her books mercilessly satirize the very tendencies that have produced the prima donna hysteria about trigger warnings and safe spaces. In novel after drily unsentimental novel, she implicitly or explicitly condemns the refusal of Americans to take individual responsibility for their problems, our society’s tendency to apply “semantic solutions to real problems,” and she suggests that there is little hope for health, prosperity and happiness without hard work, willpower, and ruthless self-examination.
This is true even in Big Brother, the novel inspired by her own sibling’s morbid obesity, an affliction—though not, in her view, an “illness”—that eventually killed him. (Shriver herself is a famous fitness fanatic who eats just one meal a day and follows a daily exercise routine involving 3,000 jumping jacks, 500 sit-ups, and 130 push-ups, though she mocks baby-boomer fitness obsessives like herself in both Big Brother and The Mandibles.)
If that weren’t bad enough, Shriver is an outspoken supporter of Brexit and has frequently expressed skepticism about mass migration to both the UK and the United States. Before settling in London, Shriver lived in Belfast (where she wrote journalism notable for its clear-sighted loathing of terrorism), Nairobi, Tel Aviv, and Bangkok. But the native North Carolinian’s cosmopolitan experiences seem to have made her only less tolerant of the self-loathing often expressed by Americans. As Shriver explained to a British interviewer:
If you have had much to do with liberal intelligentsia in the U.S., they like to think they are above their own country, and they often have contempt for their compatriots, and they think they’re better. They think that being super-critical of the United States exempts them. When they talk about Americans, they don’t think they’re talking about themselves. They’re the same people who are always vowing if Bush wins the election, they’re moving to Italy. They never move to Italy.
The Mandibles has great sport with such people and their pieties. Set in a bleak and frightening near future, it imagines how four generations of a privileged New York family cope with life in a United States that is first crippled by cyber attacks in 2025 and then goes catastrophically bankrupt in 2029 after Russia, China, and other countries attack the dollar. But even before these disasters strike, Shriver’s America has grown so decadent and awash with various forms of political correctness that its millions of obese citizens are referred to as “people of scale.” And it’s pretty clear where Shriver stands on such matters. Early in the novel when America’s first Mexican-American president insists on giving all his addresses first in Spanish and then in English, one of Shriver’s WASP characters looks forward to the day when white Americans finally become a minority, too:
They’d get their own university White Studies departments, which could unashamedly tout Herman Melville. Her children would get cut extra slack in college admissions regardless of their text scores. They could all suddenly assert that being called “white” was insulting, so that now you had to say “Western-European American,” the whole mouthful. While to each other they’d cry “What’s up, cracker?” with a pally, insider collusion, any nonwhites who employed such a bigoted term would get raked over the coals on CNN. Becoming a minority would open the door to getting roundly, festively offended at every opportunity.
Later in the book the experience of national bankruptcy, social disorder and real poverty turns out to have an upside in the improvement of Americans’ mental and physical health:
Hardly anyone was fat. Allergies were rare. Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia had disappeared. Should a friend say he was depressed, something sad had happened. After a cascade of terrors on a life and death scale, nobody had the energy to be afraid of spiders or confined spaces or leaving the house… Sex-reassignment surgery being roundly unaffordable, diagnoses of gender dysphoria were pointless… No one had the money, time or patience for pathology of any sort . . .
Suffice it to say, Shriver’s is not the conventional, politically safe brand of satire exemplified by the likes of Jonathan Franzen or the humor section of the New Yorker. It is, pace Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the kind that makes readers uncomfortable.
“I can live with offending people,” Shriver has said. “In fact, it’s become politically important to offend people, because we have to fight back against this notion that being offensive should be against the law or something, and that everyone supposedly deserves ‘respect’ for their often dopey views.”
Consider the fearlessness with which she speaks these words and then consider the example of her tut-tutting critic Francine Prose. Prose is the author of Blue Angel, a somewhat satiric novel about a professor whose life is ruined by a highly problematic charge of sexual harassment by an ambitious female student. It was published in 2000. It seems impossible that Prose would have the nerve to write Blue Angel today, or even the inclination. Indeed, the 2016 Prose might even feel compelled to take to the website of the New York Review of Books to challenge the decency of her own best work. Perhaps, Francine Prose might say, Francine Prose was “out of line.”
1 Prose was one of the renegade members of PEN America—an organization founded to protect freedom of speech and persecuted writers of all shades of opinion—who led a protest against the decision to give a freedom-of-expression award to the surviving editors of the French satirical weekly. Indeed, she was one of the six prominent New York authors who withdrew from the gala and were derided by Salman Rushdie as “fellow travellers” of the murderous Islamist project, and more gently as “six authors in search of a bit of character.” Prose and her fellow luminaries apparently felt that satire doesn’t deserve protection if it might be said to target communities or ethnic categories that they and their friends consider to be “oppressed.”